WASHINGTON - During the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual legislative conference, held Sept. 28, the contrast between the Cherokee freedmen panel and the one preceding it could not have been more stark. A succession of black speakers concluded a panel on reparations for slavery earlier that day by insisting the American public must know American history in full, by which they meant to emphasize that the Deep South alone didn't perpetrate slavery, but the ''Deep North'' did as well through its seaport traffic in the slave trade.
But in the same room only two hours later, the panel on the Cherokee freedmen - descendants of Cherokee slaves and free blacks in the 19th century - forbade an answer to even a modest question that might have offered a fuller look at American history through inclusion of some perspective on the freedmen from the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma.
Despite the moderator's invitation to offer alternative perspectives, a spokesman for Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif., said afterward that the panel was meant as a platform for the freedmen. (Watson convened the panel, along with Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives.)
More than two hours of strong language against Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chad Smith and a number of Cherokee citizens went unanswered until after the panel had disbanded. A two-page response from Smith's office, offered as ballast to the views of the panelists, didn't get much circulation in a crowd that had gone from 75 or so in seats to hundreds in a hallway crush.
The basics of the Cherokee freedmen issue is this: Foes of the tribe's March vote to require descent from the Dawes Rolls as a condition of tribal citizenship, in effect ejecting the freedmen, insist the tribe has violated its 1866 treaty with the United States; but the tribe interprets the treaty differently and considers the issue to be one of Indian identity - one has to descend from an Indian bloodline, as proved by an ancestor on the historical Dawes Rolls, to be an Indian tribal citizen. Three courts are considering the issue, and the freedmen have been restored to tribal citizenship pending court decisions.
But the Washington Convention Center was no place for fine points on Sept. 28. By the time everyone had gotten out of the hallway crush and on to where they were going next, Smith had been accused of election-rigging,
court-packing, visiting indignity on the tribe, criminality with casino funds, dictatorship, and racism. The Cherokee citizens who voted in March to require descent from ancestors on the Dawes Rolls as a condition for tribal citizenship had been compared to a snake, described as a ''disease'' and a ''Confederate tribe,'' accused of a ''hateful and vitriolic attack'' on the freedmen, apologized for, and portrayed as ignorant of what they were voting on.
The Cherokee Nation two-pager rebutted some of the criticisms, and nation communications director Mike Miller dismissed the others as local political squabbling played out on a Washington stage.
Watson has introduced legislation that would strip the Cherokee of $300 million in federal funds and suspend the tribe's authority to operate a casino until the status of the Cherokee freedmen is settled to the satisfaction of Congress. Penal amendments have been prepared for other funding bills, again pending court decisions. Watson criticized the nation sharply for characterizing her bill as a ''termination'' bill (a reference to the mid-20th century ''termination era'' of congressional policy toward tribes). The word does not appear anywhere in the bill, she said, repeating several times that it is nothing of the sort.
The National Congress of American Indians considers it a termination bill. ''We will not in any circumstances tolerate termination of any tribe,'' said Jacqueline Johnson, the NCAI executive director. ''Even though that word's not in there, it's very clear what the intent is, to us.'' The actual language of the Watson bill calls for severing the federal relationship with the Cherokee, added Virginia Davis, NCAI associate counsel, and the difference is mere semantics.
The next step for Watson and Conyers, according to Watson's spokesman, is to gain sponsors for the bill and get it a joint hearing of the Judiciary and Natural Resources committees.